Reflections of a healthcare deviant

Elena Geatches, Head of Health, July 2022

I started my new role at The Nursery almost a year ago (gasp) so it felt like a good time to reflect on what’s happened since Sept.  My first impressions cover ways of working as well as WHAT we do, because that’s quite different to what I’m used to.  And more on deviancy later! 

I have worked in market research, specialising in prescription / pharmaceutical healthcare, for nearly 21 years now.  I’ve ‘grown up’ professionally in medium to large agencies and always alongside healthcare specialists.  My work subject on Mastermind would be secondary care brand launches because I love strategically challenging work where the answer is almost always quite ‘grey’ and requires judgement calls (/leaps of faith!).  I enjoy working on questions which are tough to answer and when the decisions about which way to go are tricky.  Many times I have been ‘accused’ of being very black and white in my outlook, so it’s almost comical that professionally I most like working in the ‘grey’!  Not literally obviously. 

The Nursery became an employee-owned trust in 2020 which was a big driver in my decision to join the business.  I have worked in fast growing companies and wanted to be part of something more intimate and ultimately, somewhere I felt more in control of my professional destiny.  A long-time client of mine had made a similar decision recently and he said something which really resonated, “the problem with corporate life is you spend about 80% of your time just trying to survive the corporation.”  Post pandemic, I didn’t want to only survive at work, I wanted to really enjoy it again and get back to what I’m passionate about.  Very simply, for me that is about potential.  The potential in business, people’s potential and how brands can grow.  In other words, how things can transform with the right input (often insight), at the right time and with the right substance.  In other words, people making brave decisions and seeing them through.  That’s what being employee-owned seemed to offer me, and how I could service prescription health clients differently. 

In truth, I was the odd one out here.  The team invited me to their Summer Party before I joined and I remember one partner asking me (kindly and slightly incredulously), “You mean you’ve done health full time across your WHOLE career?  Wow, that’s a bit different to most of us here.”  Said differently, I could’ve felt uneasy – but I started to feel excited about being ‘the deviant’ and what that could mean going forward. 

I had wondered for a little while how big consumer brands evolved so smoothly and sometimes, grew so quickly.  Surely it wasn’t just about clever advertising?  Why did (prescription) healthcare brands feel so far removed from some of those smart, creative and ‘wow they get me’ ads we see?  Which, let’s be honest, are targeting the same people (fundamentally) as healthcare brands.   

Yes, it’s different because prescription healthcare is B2B.  Yes, I’ve heard a million times that healthcare matters in a different way to buying FMCG.  And yes, I know that we make decisions about our health in a different way too; we like to get the advice of an expert (in a white coat) and feel more confident when we know this is the same advice a healthcare professional would give to their own daughter / mum / sister.  Which isn’t the guidance and reassurance we usually need when buying teabags or takeaway!  I’ve lived and breathed that ‘difference’ for a long time professionally.  But there’s still a niggle and that is... people are people.  Aren’t they? 

Certainly, that felt true when looking at market research principles. Consumer researchers think about exploring and understanding beliefs, behaviours, emotions, and identities in the same way as us healthcare researchers do. They do depths and groups, stay up late to do them and worry about getting what the client needs in the same way. They strive for the killer insight and what that means in the exact same way we do.  They understand the context, both for the participants and commercially, in the same way we do.  So the approach to market research didn’t feel so different to what I’m used to, and love. 

Living the life of an agency person also felt similar.  Some meetings are inspiring… others don’t have a chair, clear agenda (nor minutes!), the commercial figures don’t always get the commentary they deserve, workload is the hot topic of the day (month, year, forever) and yes, researchers always seem humble and don’t want to blow their own trumpet!  This was all very familiar (and comforting) ground for me; I was in my professional ‘home’ once again. 

I continued to ponder, is healthcare really that different?  Were my background and I as anomalous (deviant?!) as that Summer Party conversation inferred?  I started to get hints of the difference when other partners gasped at needing 4 weeks’ recruitment time and marvelled at the level of desk research we do before we interview.  I also noticed how other partners felt the weight of responsibility differently in healthcare.  In the words of one partner who does healthcare work regularly, “they just matter a bit more to me, you know, they’re kind of… ‘heavier’ and I want to get it right.” I could identify with that. 

But the difference really struck me a couple of times in the same week - when I was sitting in our thought leadership planning session (about the complexities of identity) and a research project analysis session.  The partners here seem to understand their audiences on a different level.  The profiles and segments did seem more ‘up close and personal’.  They felt like… real people.  Not only the understanding, but also the implications, were holistic and somehow much more ‘in context’ than a lot of the healthcare work I’ve been part of.  Suddenly we were talking about habits, real daily life (and daily sh*t) and the psychological and emotional understanding of decision making was on a different level.  What does masculinity mean in 2022?  What is it that defines the British sense of humour?  Why are over 50s the blind spot in marketing?  And that killer question, what drives people to change behaviour? 

I’ve grown to feel like I ‘know’ healthcare professionals and patients and am fascinated by the changing dynamic in today’s healthcare world.  I hope I don’t stereotype (I probably do a bit!) but I feel comfortable in interviews with healthcare professionals talking about their treatment goals and patients talking about the role and deep challenges of their disease.  However, did I understand what made them laugh?  Did I understand what working from home did (or didn’t) do for them during the pandemic?  Did I understand the facets of their identity beyond the lens of health?  Did I understand what gave them a sense of ‘normality’ again post-surgery?  Or, what made them feel more human?  I can’t answer yes so confidently to those questions.  Then of course I asked myself, did it matter? 

But I think it does matter.   

And I think it should matter to more healthcare brands too.  Great consumer brands meet their audiences at their point of need, be that practical or emotional.  They understand who is buying them, why they are buying, what might make them stop /switch and what might encourage them to buy more and / or differently.  They genuinely understand their consumers’ aspirations.  Those brand owners are fluent in the mechanisms of brand, and the levers they can pull in a way that I’m not sure healthcare brand owners always do.  Of course, I’m not criticising my clients (gasp) but I do think we are all missing a trick in healthcare by not understanding our audiences to the same holistic degree.  In the words of Beau Taplin, “But people are oceans, she shrugged. You cannot know them by their surface.”  

This is what makes me feel different.  The Summer Party conversation was illuminating.  And it’s exciting!  What would a healthcare brand look like if it understood the spiritual experience their (end) users desired? Could they move from evidence-driven usage to faith?  How might they talk differently to the goals and aspirations their users are trying to achieve?  How might they tantalise their audiences more?   

Another client of mine believes that prescription health brands have the advantage if they wished to take it.  Why?  Because healthcare brands have the power to leverage not only the emotional drivers of their users but also the rational ones.  They have the potential to ‘super charge’ uptake and loyalty because they can meet so many layers of need beyond ‘just’ the emotional ones.  Healthcare brands are becoming more ‘consumer like’ and consumer brands are becoming more technical.  Who will win?  She believes the race has a little way to go yet! 

To come back to the original question – is healthcare that different? 

Yes… I suppose it is.  And those differences could serve us better.  I would love to work with more prescription brands that focus not only on reducing the impact of disease but also on increasing the feeling of being human.  A healthcare brand that wanted it’s end users to have a greater sense of normality as they journeyed through life, or their disease.  Healthcare brands with a sense of humour?  Maybe that’s taking it too far!   

Or is it? 

I lost a very close family member 3 months ago and interestingly she never lost her sense of humour.  About the things she’d always found funny, but also about her disease and the heart-breaking finality of terminal cancer.  Perhaps it’s a common coping mechanism or perhaps it was uniquely ‘just her’… but I do wonder, if we understood health and disease more holistically, could our healthcare brands get the super charge they deserve?  Customer and patient centricity is all very well, but The Nursery’s approach is teaching me and my healthcare clients that being people centric is top trumps for prescription brands wanting to fulfil their potential.